In both the United States and Canada, it is an offence to create, publish, distribute or circulate obscene materials. These regulations are administered in their respective countries by the Postal, Customs, and Police services of the government bureaucracy. The laws are much the same today as they were in the 1950s, but the definition and interpretation of what is deemed obscene have changed since the middle of the 20th century.
Through numerous court battles, the legal definition of obscenity slowly shifted. In the early 1950s, literature was thought to be obscene if it had the potential to invoke "impure" sexual thoughts in teenagers (i.e., if it was readily available and potentially harmful to one person, it was considered detrimental to society). By the end of the 1960's, the definition of obscenity acknowledged the difference between sexually explicit material and obscenity, took into account the artistic merit of the work, and recognized community standards of tolerance.
In the context of the 1950s, any depiction of homosexuality was viewed as a corrupting influence on youth. To defend their books against charges of obscenity, publishers added moralistic messages against gay and lesbian lifestyles. Few lesbian relationships lasted, and it was not uncommon for a lesbian character to commit suicide, or end up in mental institutions. Publishers argued that these books were acceptable because they acted as cautionary tales of the dangers of straying too far from the norms of society.
- Browse some of the titles in the MSVU pulp fiction collection were the lesbian relationship does not last.
- Browse the titles that resisted the trend with lesbian relationships that survive at the end of the novel.
Another tactic used by publishers was to instruct authors to frame their stories as "non-fiction" or “case studies". They claimed the books were produced for educational rather than prurient purposes. Jaye Zimet observes that " these books were doused in legitimacy, and often offered more risque reading material than the novels."
- Browse the books in the MSVU lesbian pulp fiction collection presented as non-fiction or sociological case studies
In the United States, all but first class mail could also be inspected for obscenity at any point along its shipping route. As the paperback industry relied on economies of scales with enormous volumes of books shipped for quick turnover, publishers were particularly vulnerable to the threat of their product being judged as "unmailable" by the Post Office.
In 1960, The Veil of Torment by March Hasting was one of 19 books deemed unmailable by the US Postal Services. Two other lesbian-themed books (not currently held in the MSVU Collection), First Person, 3rd Sex by Sloanne Brittian and Fear of Incest by March Hastings were also included in the seizure. At the hearing, the spokesperson for the Post Office called the books "obscene, lewd, lascivious and indecent". The Hearing Examiner agreed and referred specifically to the publisher's presentation of the material, "pictures on the front cover and excerpts on the rear cover are well designed to heighten and commercially exploit the appeal to prurient interest."
Author Marijane Meaker, remembers being warned by Fawcett Publications editor Dick Carroll that, "because the book had to pass postal inspection, it [Spring Fire] could not have a happy ending--or any ending that even hinted at the approval of homosexuality". Although her characters, Mitch and Leda were sympathetically portrayed, the story ends tragically with Mitch declaring that she never loved Leda, and Leda being committed to a mental institution.
As most of the pulp fiction was imported from the United States, Customs Services rather than the Post Office played a more significant role in censoring lesbian pulp fiction in Canada. The Canadian Customs Act prohibits the importation of books and drawings of an indecent character. Until 1958, a list of titles barred from entry into Canada was distributed to customs officers. Additionally, customs officials were free to prevent or delay entry of any book at their discretion without public notice, and with a cursory explanation to the importers and booksellers. Unlike today, where one can subscribe to a Canada Customs quarterly newsletter that lists the titles that have been barred from the country, Canada Customs of the 1950s was cautious about publicizing the lists as they feared it would provide undesired advertising and publicity for the titles.
Between 1952 and 1958, over 1000 paperback titles were barred from the country. These included the full range of paperback genres from crime to drug addiction to lesbian pulp fiction. Many of the U.S. publishers arranged to have separate print runs in Canada to circumvent problems at the border that impeded the distribution of paperbacks to approximately 9000 outlets in Canada.
It was not until the 1994 constitutional challenge by Little Sisters Bookstore in Vancouver that Justice Kenneth Smith ruled that gay and lesbian bookstores and publications were more vulnerable to Customs censorship, far out of proportion to their relative share of imported material. Canada Customs legal powers of censorship were left intact because the judge felt they were a result of faulty administration rather than any flaw inherent in the legislation.
In addition to the work done by the Postal and Customs Services, law enforcement officials were authorized to inspect newsstands and bookstores to ensure obscenity laws were upheld. In Canada, there were 33 prosecutions using the obscenity section in the Criminal Code in 1951, 30 prosecutions in 1952, and 31 prosecutions in 1953.
The Woman's Barracks, the first pulp fiction novels to provide a sympathetic portrayal of lesbians, was the focus of Governmental committees and obscenity trials in both Canada and the United States. The resulting publicity ensured that it was a best seller with over two million copies sold in the United States and reports of as many as four million copies sold worldwide by 1975.
The Canadian trial was held in Ottawa in 1952. The defence lawyer argued that the unhappiness and eventual suicide of the young character Ursula acted as a warning to young women against pursuing a lesbian lifestyle and therefore redeemed the book.
Judge McDougall’s response was:
“A great deal of the language, and particularly the description of two incidents of unnatural relationships between women, is exceedingly frank. The argument advanced before me was that publicity should be given to the question of lesbianism in order that it might act as a deterrent influence, and in this respect would be a matter for public good. The dissemination of such information is no doubt a matter that should receive proper attention from a medical and psychological standpoint, but the manner in which the material is presented in this book does not comply with those standards in any manner. In my opinion this book could have no other effect than to deprave and corrupt. I find the accused guilty as charged.”
The accused, The National News distribution company, was fined $1200.
In 1953, The Woman's Barracks was once again on trial, this time in St. Paul, Minneapolis. The defence called heavily upon literary critics to defend the books artistic merits. In this case, the book triumphed.
Adams, Mary Louise. "Margin Notes: Reading Lesbianism as Obscenity in a Cold War Courtroom." Love, Hate, and Fear in Canada's Cold War, edited by Richard Cavell. University of Toronto Press, 2004. pp. 135-158.
De la Croix, St. Sukie. Chicago Whispers: A History of LGBT Chicago before Stonewall. University of Wisconsin Press, 2012.
Kerr, M.E. "The Writing Life." Lambda Book Report, Vol. 7, No. 5, 1998. p. 12.
Ryder, Bruce B. "Undercover Censorship: Exploring the History of the Regulation of Publications in Canada." Interpreting Censorship in Canada. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 1999. pp. 129-151.
Zimet, Jaye. Strange Sisters : the Art of Lesbian Pulp Fiction, 1949-1969. Viking Studio, 1999.